#TIFF20: “CONCRETE COWBOY”
By David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Cole (Caleb McLaughlin from Stranger Things) has been expelled from his Detroit school for fighting. With nowhere else to go, his mother drives him to stay with his Dad, Harp (Idris Elba), for the summer in North Philadelphia. Cole does not really know him, and is not aware that Harp spends his time caring for the horses with other local cowboys at the stables down the street. With few options available, Cole starts working at the stables during the day and spends his nights hanging out with his drug-dealing friend Smush (Emmy-winner Jharrel Jerome).
My central issue with Concrete Cowboy is how exhausting and longwinded it feels. Does Staub want to focus on Harp, his fellow riders and the urban cowboy subculture they are a part of, or does he want to focus on the strained relationship between Harp and Cole? Or should the focus be on Cole and Smush’s friendship and the dangerous path it is leading towards? The Film never seems content enough to settle on one through line, and spends far too much of its 111-minute running time jumping between all three of these Subplots and the assortment of intriguing but underdeveloped characters that populate them. Worse, Staub shoots the Film with handheld, digital cameras and no tripods. So no matter what is happening in the scene, the camera is always shaking and never steady. It is certainly an eclectic choice for a Film like this, but it makes watching it an increasingly frustrating experience.
Concrete Cowboy is an admirable debut feature from Co-Writer/Director Ricky Staub. He tells a story about a subculture few of us were aware of previously, and he strives for authenticity in every frame. The story is personal and his direction reflects that. Elba is not the lead here, but he is just as rock solid and dependable as he always is – and he looks wicked riding a horse (is there anything he cannot do?). McLaughlin holds his own against him and does a great job as the Film’s Lead. He digs down deep into Cole’s psyche, playing into his confused, emotionally fragile state with ease. He is keenly aware of the expectations the audience has of him as a Child Actor in one of their favourite Netflix series and is all too pleased to subvert and flip them around entirely.
As the Credits roll, we are treated to brief talking head clips from the real life cowboys starring in the Film discussing the challenges that urban development and gentrification have created for them. The clips are far too short, but their words are fascinating and illuminating. I found myself immediately much more interested in what was happening, and then really disappointed when they ended so quickly. Why this was not the immediate and only focus of the Film?
CONCRETE COWBOY screens at TIFF ’20 as follows:
Sun, Sep 13
TIFF Bell Lightbox
Mon, Sep 14
Online at Bell Digital Cinema
Sat, Sep 19
TIFF Bell Lightbox